Despite a racing legacy that can be traced back directly to Louis Chevrolet, General Motors decided in late 1962 that they would honor the American Manufacturer’s Ban on motorsports. The gentlemen’s agreement, which was originally set forth in 1957, mandated that Detroit auto manufacturers would not support racing or motorsports of any kind, whether it was through financial involvement, the development of racing parts or even publicity.
From those dark days rose Chevrolet’s greatest generation, which is comprised of the now legendary names, hardware and cars that kept Chevys at the forefront of racing. While the oval tracks and road circuits certainly provided strong venues, the drag strips became the grassroots backbone for a renaissance of Chevrolet motorsports. It was there that a core group of Bowtie enthusiasts dug in and kept racing while winning the minds and hearts of America’s youth.
Today, almost all of these cars and their owners are gone, while the remainder is retired, old and gray. Here’s a look back at these wonderful people and their machines that left a mark on drag racing that can still be seen today.
NHRA’s 1962 NHRA Winternationals, held in Pomona, CA, has gone down as one of the most significant events in drag racing history. One of the reasons is the short-lived SS/S class, which was only for the most powerful cars from the current model year. At this event, “Dyno” Don Nicholson (foreground) won the Mr. Stock Eliminator title over the Bill Jenkins-tuned Old Reliable II driven by Dave Strickler. Nicholson’s holeshot and 12.84 at 109.22 overcame Strickler’s much quicker 12.55.
Hayden Proffitt is another name that became legendary because of the NHRA 1962 Winternationals. This 409-powered Chevy #612 won class at the Winternationals and snared the overall Mr. Stock Eliminator title at the U.S. Nationals over the legendary Ramchargers factory team. Proffitt would eventually break the 11-second barrier with this car in October 1962, which led to it being later named as one of the Top Ten Stockers of all time.
Popularly known as “Mr. Chevrolet,” Dick Harrell was a winning driver, car builder and showman who attracted well-known sponsors such as Nickey Chevrolet and Yenko. This Chevy II was built by Bill Thomas Race Cars and powered by a Mark IV 427 and a manual trans. The car reportedly ran a best of 8.980 at Cordova with a speed of 155.17 mph. This former AHRA Driver of the Year and World Champ was killed while match racing in Canada at age 39 in 1971.
First gen Corvettes were part of the SoCal drag racing scene as seen with Gayland Hill’s 1962 model. While details about the car are few, newspapers of the era report the car ran an injected 377-ci stroker motor on nitro and ran a 9.420 at 141.00 mph at Lions in September 1966. Hill reportedly sold the car, dropped out of the sport and started building engines for drag boats.
Bruce Larsen had the very first all fiberglass machine as seen with this 1966 Chevelle. With the rear axle moved forward a full 12 inches, this trend-setting car featured the best engineering of its days with a 2 x 3 tube chassis, a relocated rearend pushed 12 inches forward, a set-back engine, an all-aluminum interior and a one-piece tilt front end. Larsen’s Chevelle was a strong runner with a 454 stroker and four-speed. He won the 1989 NHRA Funny Car championship in an Oldsmobile-bodied car. (Photo Courtesy of the Don Garlits Drag Racing Hall of Fame)
While some early Funny Car racers put ‘glass bodies over the top a dragster or altered chassis, others based theirs on production cars. The Pisano brothers (Joe, Frank, Carmen, Sam and Tony) campaigned one of the very first Camaros in 1967 with Frank as the driver. Built from a production six-cylinder car, the one-piece ‘glass nose was extended 22 inches, while the rear axle was moved forward 9 inches. At 2,440 pounds, this mostly steel car ran an 8.23 at 174.94 with a blown 427. The team would later run Funny Cars until the late ’80s.
At just 20 years old, Russell James “Jungle Jim” Liberman was already a respected car builder and driver. He would later move east and pair up with the voluptuous “Jungle Pam” Hardy to become the most popular match racer of his era. With a Logghe chassis, this car ran as quick as a 7.83 with a 427 and an Art Carr Powerglide. Jim would win one NHRA event in his career before he was killed in a head-on car crash with a bus in 1977.
Corvairs were known to weigh several hundred pounds less than the Chevy II, so they became a quick favorite among racers. Rusty Delling built this blown car in late 1966 to run in NHRA’s S/XS. Late that year, he ran an 8.980 at 153 with this car hosting a Chevy 327 and an automatic.
With friends like Don Hardy and Dick Harrell, high school teacher Kelly Chadwick was running in some fast company in the mid ’60s. Running match races around his work schedule, Chadwick never ventured onto the national trail until 1969. That’s when Hardy built him this flip-top Camaro, which at one time was the fastest Chevy with a 7.22 at 209 mph to its credit. He would later retire and become well known as a girls’ volleyball coach.
Conceived by dealership owner Fred Gibb and Dick Harrell, the first ever Camaro ZL1 successfully debuted at the 1969 AHRA Winternationals running in Super Stock. With its COPO 0560 all-aluminum 427 engine, it would later win an AHRA national championship in 1971. This car became the benchmark for many after it, including the new 2012 Camaro ZL-1. It sold at a Mecum auction in early 2012 for $400,000.
Randy Walls became a household name in 1969 when he went on a nationwide match race tour with his Chevy-powered Super Nova II. Before retiring in 1971, he had run as quick as a 6.90 at 220 mph with Chevrolet power. After coming back into Nostalgia Funny Car racing, Walls won the Goodguys championship in 2004, and later made nearly every magazine in the country when this car was destroyed in a top end fire in 2007.
Running out of Royal Oak, MI, Pete Seaton’s series of Seaton’s Shaker Chevys were well known throughout the country. Del Heinart handled both the wrenching and driving duties on this 1964 Chevelle, which ran an injected 396 big-block. With virtually no aftermarket parts available, the car reportedly ran 10.30s at 136 mph with a Turbo Hydramatic while weighing 2,830 pounds. Seaton would later run a 1966 Chevelle and then a Corvair, where he was the first to break 180 mph.
One of the earliest supercharged Chevy match racers was this Chevy II originally campaigned by Steve Bovan from Blair’s Speed Shop in Pasadena, CA. (It’s still in business.) Ed Carter and Bob Little campaigned the car for Central Chevrolet out of Fremont, CA, in 1966. Running at 2,400 pounds, the car ran nine-second time slips with a 427 Chevy with a 6-71 GMC blower on alcohol.
One of the very first flip-top Camaro Funny Cars was owned by Don Blair and driven by Steve Bovan, who worked in the engine room at Blair’s Speed Shop. The car was running on a 125-inch wheelbase chassis built by Mike Hoag and match raced throughout the country with a blown 427 and an automatic transmission. The car reportedly ran an 8.35 at 175.78 at OCIR in late 1967 and was campaigned through 1969.
Running out of Birmingham, AL, Bobby Wood found success on the match race trail with the 106-inch wheelbase, fiberglass-bodied 1966 Chevelle. Running a 427 milled out to 454 ci with Mondello heads, a Pete Robinson-prepped 6-71 blower and a Torqueflite, Wood ran as quick as an 8.43 at 171 mph in 1966 with the car.
In 1963, no better Chevy could be had than the lightweight Impala with the Z-11 option featuring a dual quad 427/430 four-speed Posi-traction rear and an all-aluminum front end. Dave Strickler and Bill Jenkins ran this one–with the factory sticker still on the rear window just above the car number. The car is still around, restored and ready for action.
Many Chevy cars lived long lives racing successfully in other classes. After starting out as an E/Gasser the early ’60s, this ’55 got a big-block and altered wheelbase treatment in 1966. Nick and Joanne Iarussi of Wickliffe, OH, won a Pro Gas national championship with Godzilla in the mid ’80s, and it’s still seen racing on occasion.
Text by Rod Short and Photos from the Rod Short Collection